How can we know Nikola Tesla? The 19th-century Serbian-American inventor was a formative figure in the advances of electricity – but he was not a master showman like Thomas Edison nor a savvy businessman like George Westinghouse. Today, his legacy involves a dry history of his inventions and a fetishistic embrace by environmentalists, idealists, and Elon Musk for his perceived politics and his unmatched mind. These elements collided in 2017’s The Current War, where Nicholas Hoult played Tesla as an eccentric dandy with a sexy swagger and a devil-may-care attitude toward finances. But this version of the man would be unrecognizable to the one presented by Ethan Hawke in his latest collaboration with Michael Almereyda, the dreamy and daring Tesla.
Written and directed by Almereyda, Tesla is a biopic that questions the very nature of that film category. Hawke stars in the title role, playing the curious inventor as a man ahead of his time. He will be swarmed with charismatic characters. Kyle MacLachlan brings a stinging bravado as Edison, who saw Tesla as an upstart, rival, and snob. Stand-up comedian Jim Gaffigan offers a jaunty yet suitably restrained turn as Westinghouse, a self-made man with a masculine buoyancy. With a scowl as strong as his profile, Donnie Keshawarz glowers mightily as Tesla’s frustrated financier J.P. Morgan. Rather than bluster back at these Big Men, Hawke’s Tesla drops his gaze, mutters a sharp remark, and then disappears back into his own little world of wonder, lightning, and dreams.
Almereyda refuses to bolster his hero with machismo or offer ego-fueled eruptions, the kind of big drama moments that play well in the Oscar nominee montages. His Telsa is too head-in-the-clouds for such peacocking. What grounds him is his fragile romance with Morgan’s daughter, philanthropist Anne Morgan (Eve Hewson). It is she who meets Tesla’s eye, who challenges his nature, and who wants not his mind but his heart. Hewson brings spark to Tesla, playing off Hawke’s heady grumbles with a knowing smile and a gentle gaze. Anne knows him better than any other, and so she is the conduit to the audience understanding this strange and sensational figure.
Almereyda rejects the standard stodgy solemnity of period piece biopics. His characters will not be bound by the objects or even the ignorance of their time. Thus, Anne sits before a laptop and speaks coolly of the Google search results of Tesla versus his contemporaries. She cracks open the stiff confines of the tales of great men, making sure to mention the wives who bore their children, made their houses into homes, played their sounding board, and proffered a shoulder to lean on. The female figures that flitter faintly in the fringes of other biopics sit and stay awhile in Tesla, discussing science, society, and sex with an unapologetic spunk. Rebecca Dayan as the illustrious actress Sarah Bernhardt particularly dazzles.
Remarkably, Hawke is not lost amid all this. He’s played the alluring bad boy often enough, but here his restraint sends a meta message about Telsa the man. To draw focus to the landscape of the inventor’s mind, Tesla purposefully plays down Hawke’s charms, urging us inward. The film as a whole becomes a reflection of Telsa as Almereyda imagines him: a genius so in his own head that life flew by him in snatches of compelling conversation, murky memories, and curious characters. The film ebbs and flows as if we are witness to a dream. Almereyda creates a surreal aesthetic through John Paesano’s electronic score and a hazy yet vibrant color scheme that seems to throb within Sean Price Williams’ lilting cinematography.
Another rebellion against biopic form, Almereyda embraces the artificial and the blatantly false. Rather than using CGI to put his elaborately costumed actors before photo-realistic backgrounds of world’s fairs and Niagara Falls, he plops in painted backdrops that call attention to the artifice of it all. It’s jarring yet wonderful to see performers stand before flat canvas, rolling with the fans suggesting wind or the push of a steam engine. Later, Almereyda mocks the audience’s desire for a showdown with the evil Edison by providing one, complete with an apology and a nice slice of American pie. However, Anne’s smirking voiceover breaks the spell, informing the audience such a scene never happened. No threads were so neatly tied up in real life.
Through all this, Almereyda puts the subjectivity of biopics at the forefront, urging his audience to curiosity not contentment. For what film could ever capture the entirety of a man? What fool would try to make such a movie?
Instead, Almereyda and his impeccable cast paint in light, sound, color, and bombast a portrait of a time and a mind caught up in it. In this unique and exhilarating execution, it makes perfect sense to speak of cats in connection to lightning storms. Likewise, Hawke stepping up to an anachronistic microphone to deliver an achingly earnest karaoke performance of “Everybody Wants To Rule The World” proves not only inexplicable but also sublime.
All in all, Tesla is beautiful, bizarre, bold, and brilliant.